To have transformable jets in the follow-up game to Warhawk feels like a natural evolution for Sony's flight combat series. Starhawk's multiplayer showcases this with superb results, so it's that much more of a mystery that the same can't be said about its other modes.
- An adequate addition to the Space Western genre
- Foot-to-flight transitions are near seemless
- Fine blending of RTS and Action game design
- Campaign feels like a five-hour training mode
- Some co-op and solo missions are near impossible without exploits
- Makes Warhawk look dated
By 2007 standards, Warhawk was an unusual third person multiplayer game. Not only was it the PlayStation 3’s first dual release as a BD-Rom and digital download, it also took the risk of removing the game’s planned story mode, a risk paid that off based on the game’s positive reception.
This time however, developer Lightbox Interactive (made up of some staff from Warhawk developer Incognito Entertainment) took the time to not only add a campaign, but also a Horde-inspired co-op mode. Yet these additions feel like mere bonuses when you discover how well Starhawk gives players the freedom and flexibility to transition from on-foot combat to aerial dogfighting in a matter of seconds. While the lack of such a feature in Warhawk didn’t hurt the 2007 game, Starhawk manages to make its spiritual predecessor feel older than it really is, which says something about this first effort by LightBox.
A Promising Start
Told mostly through economical and unusually concise “motion comic” cutscenes (not unlike the some of the expository scenes from Resistance 3), Starhawk’s story centers around an energy miner named Emmett Graves. Off in a colony unimaginatively named the Frontier, there’s great risk in the kind of energy he’s harvesting, known as rift energy. Direct and extended exposure to rift energy can corrupt anyone, mutating them into lethal creatures known as the Outcasts. The fact that the Outcasts are very protective of the energy makes them Starhawk’s antagonists, a personal problem for Emmett because his older brother is one of them.
The campaign itself starts promisingly enough. You quickly learn how to drop structures from space and use them (and your weapons) against the Outcast. This will later include the flight vehicle central to Starhawk, the transformable and aptly named Hawk. The guy dropping the goods from space is Emmett’s technical engineer, Sydney Cutter. You then traverse through a desert landscape on a Sidewinder, a nimble vehicle not unlike the speeder bike from Star Wars. The backdrop of the rugged frontier, complemented by all the advanced weaponry and technology, makes this initial chapter feel like something Borderlands fans can get behind.
Five-Hour Training Mode
Yet it is by the third or fourth mission one realizes that, despite genuine attempts at giving Starhawk an engrossing narrative, this campaign feels more like a five-hour training mode in preparation for the multiplayer. The majority of the objectives are conveniently laid out by Cutter even before the enemies arrive. He tells Emmett of the inbound enemy types, how many seconds before they arrive, and even where they’ll land on the map.
While this takes away from the single player mode’s immersiveness, it’s an issue that pales in comparison to the difficulty challenges near the end of the campaign. It is by the tenth mission that players will encounter an objective so difficult that many will discover--just out of desperation--a significant exploitable feature that can be used in both the single player and co-op modes. This involves delaying the arrival of the next wave of enemies and harvesting enough energy to litter the map with more than enough turrets and cannons to overwhelm the Outcasts. While I assume this was not the intended design, it’ll be the only way many gamers can beat this mission, especially since you’re facing the classic infinite spawning monster closet.
The Outcast do not spawn infinitely in the co-op mode, but they do give you a proper beating. It adjusts based on player count, up to four, but no matter how many you play with, it will still be very difficult. These missions involve protecting a rig for six rounds, starting with the Outcast infantry and then later adding Hawks and other vehicles. I played every co-op map at least thrice; some maps we gave up on because the rig would destroyed by the second or third wave. And for the ones we did beat, we had to resort to the same energy farming exploit from the single player mode, often by leaving one sniper alive so as not to trigger the next wave.
It’s Sure Something To Look At
It’s of some minor consolation that these exploits manage to bring forth a great deal of visual spectacle. Imagine planting a dozen cannons, all of which self-aim their laser eyes at any Hawks flying by. Now picture one of the later rounds starring a swarm of over a dozen lethal Hawks and having your cannons give them a proper greeting. It’s a thrill to watch Hawk after Hawk get shot down, some spinning to their demise in red and orange flames. It’s an even better experience as an active participant, whether you’re on foot and helping pick off Hawks with a remarkably effective rocket launcher or taking to the air yourself for some dogfighting.
In some respects, both the colonisation theme and the ‘instant building’ design makes Starhawk feel like a companion experience to last year’s Red Faction: Armageddon. It’s especially the case with the latter; rhe Nano-Forge in Armageddon, with its ‘instant-building’ capability is about as unbelievable as the ability to call down a collection of self-building structures from space in Starhawk. Not that this is a bad thing; it is science-fiction after all. There’s even a trophy for dropping a building on top of an opponent.
And it is in this gameplay mechanic that Starhawk’s multiplayer is the game’s main draw. It is a game that should interest real-time strategy enthusiasts and will help make some action game fans understand one of the fundamental draws of the RTS genre. This involves planting an automated structure that operates without your direct supervision but still gives you a sense of accomplishment when that structure operates as designed. It’s very satisfying to continually see your name appear in the scrolling kill ticker because a cannon you planted took down a Hawk all on its own.
Hot Mech-On-Mech Action
Another one of Starhawk’s strengths lies in being able to switch from defense to offense (and vice versa) in very little time. While teammates are off in their Sidewinders at the start of a Capture The Flag match, you might prefer to drop turrets and cannons around your team’s flag and keep watch for the impending arrival of flag-hungry opponents. Then the ‘Enemy Flag Taken’ notification appears, forcing the judgement call of holding the fort or helping escort your buddy. Due to the Hawks’ often-impressive mobility, many players will often choose the latter option. With a simple jump, a mid-air transformation and a dramatic musical cue to set the mood, there’s anticipation in possibly saving your teammate from a pursuer riding his own Sidewinder, or worse, a Hawk.
The common and worthwhile occurrence of mech-vs-mech combat will satisfy most any gamer who has dabbled in the multiplayer modes of the last couple Transformers video games. The only thing more remarkable than the Hawks’ mobility is how resilient it is when hitting terrain, which can happen when weaving through some of the maps’ rock columns. Clearly Lightbox would rather have players die at the hands of enemies as opposed to dying from intricate level design.
The fittingly large maps--many equal to the map sizes in the Battlefield series--accommodate Starhawk’s vehicles with enough ground area and airspace to roam. Many of these maps also have enough terrain diversity that it will take some time before knowing the most efficient (or exploitable) paths to best take home enemy flags. Aside from CTF, Lightbox sticks to other familiar multiplayer modes: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and a variation of the territory-based Conquest mode called Zones. When you’ve played enough to know all the enemy capture points and flag locales without referring to the map you just might feel less upset that Star Wars: Battlefront 3 was cancelled.
You’re In Control
The only thing worse than those hamfisted and triumphant jet fly-bys that appear throughout the Modern Warfare games was how it was a shame that you and your friends couldn’t be the ones controlling the planes themselves. It’s one of the reasons why Battlefield’s multiplayer is so well regarded and why it works well for Starhawk. A match mostly made up of good players will yield a few scenes worth recording. If you happen to be that flag holder riding a Sidewinder while being chased by a Hawk, expect to have a Michael Bay moment if a friendly Hawk comes to your rescue. While Starhawk is not recommended for those seeking a worthwhile single player or Horde experience, the versus multiplayer is fully featured enough to make it a worthy successor to Warhark, enhanced further by simplistic RTS gameplay and transforming mechs.